Saturday, December 20, 2014

Bawds and Brothel-keepers in Shakespeare's England

by Sam Thomas

EHFA Alumnus Sam Thomas is back with a guest post marking the paperback release of The Harlot’s Tale, the second book in The Midwife Mystery series. The first book in the series, The Midwife’s Tale is currently available as an E-book for $2.99. Click here for buying options.

When I began work on the second book in The Midwife Mysteries, my task was to decide what the book would be about. I knew my protagonist would be Bridget Hodgson, a crime-solving midwife in York, England, but I wanted each book to have a “big” issue in the background. For my first book, The Midwife’s Tale, this issue was rebellion: even as Parliament rebelled against King Charles a woman was accused of rebelling against (and murdering) her husband. Even then I knew that the third book’s issue would be witchcraft. But what about book two?

In the end, I settled on puritanism and sin, with a particular interest in bawds and brothels. In The Harlot’s Tale, Bridget finds herself caught up in a series of bloody murders as a killer – perhaps motivated by religious fanaticism – attempts to rid York of its sinners one-by-one. And in order to get the period detail right, I needed to dig into the history of prostitution. (Never a dull moment!) When I started reading, I had no idea how fascinating the world of bawdry and brothels was, or that a bawd named Helen Wright would become one of my major supporting characters.

Bawds were the men and women behind England’s sex trade, or as one outraged preacher put it, “nourishers, promoters, and provokers of lechery, fornication, and adultery!” Often they acted as go-betweens for clients and prostitutes, but this was just the start. Some bawds also acted as landlords, renting rooms both to prostitutes and adulterous couples in search of a little privacy, and others offered ‘cures’ for the various diseases that were part and parcel of the business. (A prostitute, a room, a cure for disease: Talk about one-stop shopping!)

Not surprisingly, more than a few bawds also operated even less savory sidelines to prostitution. One bawd supposedly staged a street fight between two of “his” women, and then hired pickpockets to relieve the crowd of their purses as they watched the show. Bawds also tried to con their clients, running stings that would make Paul Newman and Robert Redford proud. In one scam, the bawd would wait until a woman and her client were in flagrante and then send in the ‘constable’ to ‘arrest’ the man. The ‘constable’ (who was, of course, paid by the bawd), then would confiscate whatever money the man had with him as a price for his misbehavior. It’s not as if he could go to the Justice of the Peace and complain that he’d been robbed while committing a crime!

That said, brothel-keepers were sometimes good neighbors as well. Historians have discovered one bawd who – in his will – gave clothes to the poor women of his parish, paid the school fees for a neighborhood boy, and helped fund repairs to the parish church. We can only wonder what his neighbors thought of his full-time job!

If you’d like to read more about bawds and brothels or the language of prostitution, click on over to the awesome website

To win a signed copy of The Harlot’s Tale, comment below or head over to Sam’s Facebook page, leave a comment, and you’ll be entered in the drawing.

Sam Thomas is the author of The Midwife Mysteries from Minotaur/St.Martin's. The third book in the series The Witch Hunter’s Tale will be released on January 6, 2015. For more on midwifery and childbirth visit his website.


  1. I don't know how it was then, though I shall read the book to find out, but ridding York of its sinners one by one today would be quite an undertaking.

  2. This sounds like a good thing for me to be reading, since it's my time slot for Book 5 of the Legacy series.


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